The story of Kevin MacLeod, told by filmmaker Ryan Camarda, not only illustrates the highs and lows of success but offers a compelling look at the future of the music ecosystem and its myriad possibilities.
From YouTube Minecraft montages to Academy-award winning films, composer Kevin MacLeod’s music is everywhere. The same could be said for a band like the Beatles or a global superstar like Beyonce, but MacLeod did something no other artist dared to do: give away all of his music for free, just as long as they give him credit. This seemingly insane business model has made his music so ubiquitous that almost everyone on the planet has come across one of his songs—yet very few people actually know who the heck Kevin MacLeod is. That’s where Ryan Camarda’s latest documentary Royalty-Free: The Music of Kevin MacLeod comes in, giving viewers an honest and hilarious look into one of the most impactful composers of our time.
The Knockturnal spoke with director Ryan Camarda about his experiences with Kevin, his creative process, and the ways our modern music ecosystem is changing rapidly.
The Knockturnal: When did you first encounter the music of Kevin MacLeod? And when you finally met him in person, did he met your expectations?
Ryan Camarda: I first encountered the music, I have no idea! When does anyone first encounter his music? His music is so widely used and in so many ways it’s impossible to know when they first encountered his music! I honestly had no expectations going in when I first met him. He was a mystery that I would slowly start to unravel.
The Knockturnal: Creatives use their instinct to guide them. The same goes for Kevin and his composing. As a director, what instinct did you follow when you were crafting this narrative?
Ryan Camarda: Instinct—so hard to quantify in his case, but if anything, it was discover, research, discover. There were widening depths of knowledge about Kevin and about the Digital Audio Revolution surrounding him.
The Knockturnal: Kevin has a very distinct way of reading other’s emotions and interpreting the people, events, and trends around him. What did you find the most interesting about his way of seeing the world?
Ryan Camarda: I found his constantly shifting point of view to be really interesting. He would latch onto one thing really hard, and then it would kinda fade; then he’d latch on really hard onto something different.
The Knockturnal: What was the biggest challenge you faced during production?
Ryan Camarda: Deciding when to stop. The film is not based on a specific event so it was a very open-ended experience.
The Knockturnal: Although Kevin has this relentless optimism, there’s a darker side to him (i.e. manic depression; proneness to sensory overload; mourning his late brother; imposter syndrome). Personally, that concerned me! I’m curious: How is he doing currently?
Ryan Camarda: As far as I last heard Kevin is doing well. I think he’s bunkered up like most people during this pandemic. He’s pretty interested in AI music—that is AI-generated music and composing.
The Knockturnal: Why do you think something needs to be “wrong” for Kevin to get into his creative mojo?
Ryan Camarda: I see it as a challenge, and people like to solve puzzles and challenges. Why did people want to climb Mount Everest? Because it was there. [Laughs]
The Knockturnal: What is your own opinion on the battle between Creative Commons & ASCAP? And on the future of the music ecosystem generally?
Ryan Camarda: Creative Commons is extremely important in the development of the democratization and sharing of knowledge, beyond just music. ASCAP and other organizations are very important in terms of getting royalties for artists which continues to be a challenge like with the rise of Twitch streamers. I do think that ASCAP and other such organizations were slower to adapt to the Internet and new ways of doing things, but they have been working on it.
The Knockturnal: There is definitely a pedagogical aspect to your documentary. If there is one “learning moment” you’d like viewers to experience, what would that be?
Ryan Camarda: The world is complicated and that this is the story of somebody who believed in something and found great success. The world has changed and there are more chances and opportunities out there for people to grasp.
The Knockturnal: A music professor you interviewed described Kevin as someone who “has a talent for making songs people don’t think they need but do need all the same.” Was there ever an unexpected moment where Kevin’s music was that thing you needed?
Ryan Camarda: All the time—there have been countless videos.
The Knockturnal: At the end of the film, many of your interviewees tried to put into words what makes Kevin tick. I’d love to hear what you think makes Kevin tick.
Ryan Camarda: It’s hard to say. If you find out, I’d like to know! [Laughs] It’s really hard to say since he’s constantly shifting, I think there is an element of solving challenges; I think his past has a definite influence as well. Ultimately, I’m not sure it is so easy to define what makes anybody tick so easily as humans are complicated, and there’s a lifetime of thought and influences that dictate what goes into making us tick. It’s a lot of different things, like what his friends mention in the documentary, kind of like the parable of the wise men looking at an elephant and describing it in totally diverging ways.